Undercover video footage that resulted in charges of soring against well known walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell has been released by the Humane Society of the United States.
ABC’s Nightline aired the video footage for the first time this week.
It reveals treatment meted out to horses in McConnell’s care to achieve the high-stepping gait that is so desirable in the walking horse industry.
The video, shot over several weeks in 2011 at Whitter Stables, operated by McConnell, shows individuals abusing horses by using painful chemicals on the horses’ front legs to force them to perform the artificial high-stepping gait.
This cruel practice, known as soring, has been illegal for more than 40 years under the federal Horse Protection Act.
The footage also shows horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face, and hit across the head and legs with heavy wooden sticks.
The investigator documented “stewarding” – training a horse not to react to pain during official show inspections of their legs for soreness, by striking them in the head when they flinch during mock inspections in the training barn.
The investigation also uncovered the illegal use of numbing agents for the purpose of temporarily masking a horse’s reaction to pain so it can pass official horse show inspections.
“I am deeply disturbed by the cruelty documented throughout our investigation, as should anyone with any level of decency,” the society’s director of equine protection, Keith Dane, said.
“The immense suffering horses often endure simply for the sake of a showy gait is unacceptable.
“Congress should act swiftly to stiffen penalties, eliminate industry self-regulation, and close other loopholes that have allowed many trainers to continue to abuse horses in violation of the law, undetected and with little or no penalty.”
Dane is a licensed judge for gaited horse shows, and the former president of one of the leading organizations dedicated to the humane care, treatment and training of gaited horses.
Under the Horse Protection Act, it is illegal to transport or show sored horses.
McConnell, who was already on a five-year federal disqualification for soring horses, has entered a notice of intent to plead guilty to a charge of felony conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act as alleged in Count 1 of the indictment.
Other defendants in the federal case are expected to enter pleas in the near future.
Despite being prohibited from training during his five-year disqualification, prominent owners in the Tennessee Walking Horse community continued to pay McConnell to train their horses to compete in horse shows.
Many of the owners have themselves received tickets and suspensions for entering sored horses in shows.
The society also provided local law enforcement with critical evidence leading to the arrest of McConnell and two others charged with 31 counts of violating the Tennessee Cruelty to Animals Statute in a case that is still pending.
On March 1, the society assisted the Tennessee 25th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office, the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, to remove horses from McConnell’s training operation. It said some were in pain, their legs seared with scars — evidence the horses had been illegally sored with chemicals over a prolonged period of time.
Dane said the society was grateful to the authorities for taking action in the case.
The society’s president and chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, said ABC’s broad exposé this week showed how thoroughly corrupted the walking horse industry had become.
“Although McConnell’s is the second case involving felony indictments under the Horse Protection Act in the last year, the law has been flouted for decades ― and many trainers in the walking horse industry continue to sore horses even after being found in violation of the Act repeatedly and even after having been suspended from showing.
“Jackie McConnell was on a five-year federal disqualification from showing at the time of this HSUS investigation. It’s been a competitive race to the bottom in the walking horse industry, with trainers believing that success requires this sort of law-breaking.
“The US Department of Agriculture, under Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, has stepped up enforcement of the Horse Protection Act. But the law, now more than 40 years old, needs to be overhauled and fortified by Congress.
“This industry has accepted lawlessness as the norm, and given its track record, the Horse Protection Act must be amended to give USDA the tools it needs to root out and eliminate this criminal culture once and for all. Please take action today to help protect horses from soring.”